Understanding Ethernet Switches and Routers - Contemporary ...

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April 2011

Contemporary Control Systems, Inc.

page 1
Understanding Ethernet Switches and Routers
This extended article was based on a two-part article that
was written by George Thomas of Contemporary Controls
and appeared in the February and March 2011 issues of
InTech Magazine — an ISA publication.
When you go to a computer store to purchase a device
that will access the Internet they will try to sell you a
. In most instances, the router will come with a
(shortened term for
switching hub
) so that
you can connect several Ethernet devices to just one
device. So what is the difference between an Ethernet
router and an Ethernet switch? The long answer to that
question requires an examination of the Open Systems
Interconnection Model (OSI) which is frequently used to
explain how communication networks operate.
Ethernet and the OSI Model
In Figure 1 you will see the seven-layer model with each
layer providing a unique service. Communication
between two stations begins at the
with the sending station initiating a message to a
receiving station via a common
. With respect
to this model, Ethernet provides services at the
Data Link
layers through the use
of bridges and repeaters. An Ethernet switch is
classified as a bridge and therefore operates at the
data link layer while routers operate at the

layer. Let’s try to understand why.
The lowest layer is the physical layer that defines the
basic signalling on the medium. Ethernet transmits
representing logic “ones” or “zeros” across
the medium to another station that decodes the
symbols to extract the data. Although Ethernet will
operate with coaxial cable as the medium, modern
Ethernet networks incorporate twisted-pair cabling. If
the path is too long, a repeater can be used to extend
distance. If fibre optic cable is preferred, media
converters can be used. If multiple devices need to
share the connection, a repeating hub (commonly
called just a hub) is used. All three of these devices
reside at the physical layer because they do nothing
more than process symbols on the medium.
One layer above the physical layer is the data link
layer. Ethernet is a local area network technology
with end stations assigned unique 48-bit addresses.
These addresses are called
media access control

(MAC) addresses. When data is to be sent from one
Ethernet station to another, the data is first arranged
as shown in Figure 2. The destination and
source addresses are appended so that the intended
station knows that it is to receive the message and
who sent it. Other parts of the frame include the
which alerts the receiving station that a
frame is coming, a
Type or Length
field that identifies
either the type of data or length of the data field, the
field itself and the
Frame Check Sequence
Figure 1
— The OSI Model
April 2011
page 2
© 2011 — No part of the Essentials may be reproduced without the written consent of Contemporary Controls.
to verify the integrity of the frame. The payload of the
frame is the actual data. Everything else is overhead.
Carrier Sense Multiple Access with Collision
Detection (CSMA/CD)
As an Ethernet station prepares to send a frame, it first
listens to the medium to verify that a clear channel
exists. If silence is sensed, it transmits its message and
then waits a determined amount of time, called the slot
time. The slot time is used for detecting a collision due
to another station transmitting at the same time. If no
collision is sensed, the sender assumes a successful
transmission. If a collision has occurred, the sender
refrains from transmitting again for an amount of time
based on a backoff algorithm that incorporates
randomness. An early criticism of Ethernet was that
this probabilistic approach to media access control was
not conducive to real-time systems. There are other
problems with CSMA/CD.

All CSMA/CD stations must reside within one
collision domain
to ensure that all stations will
detect a collision between stations located at
the farthest points. This limits the geographic
distance of the Ethernet network.

Stations residing in the same collision domain
can detect all transmissions but only receive
those addressed to them. All stations can
transmit but not at the same time. This is called
half-duplex operation or
Shared Ethernet.
Breaking Up the Collision Domains for Higher
A switching hub was introduced to avoid the problems
of Shared Ethernet. A switching hub is much different
from a repeating hub. A port on a switching hub
appears to an end station as another end station
except that it does not consume a MAC address. To
an attached end station, the switch port appears as the
only other station within the collision domain. This is
how it works.
Assume station A is on port 1 of an eight-port switch
and station B is on port 2 as shown in Figure 3.
Station A sends a message to station B. Switch port
1 reads the entire frame into its internal input buffer
and forwards it to port 2’s output buffer which then
transmits the entire frame to station B. So what is the

The switch has effectively created two collision
domains — each appearing as a two-station link.
With only two stations, collisions can be avoided
altogether by creating a full-duplex link which
potentially doubles throughput.

With a full-duplex link there is no collision domain
— thus, distance is limited only by cable losses.
Fibre optic distances are no longer limited by the
collision domain and can be much greater than
Shared Ethernet lengths. Without a concern for a
common collision domain, switches can be
cascaded at will.

With separate collision domains on each port,
each port can operate at different data rates
allowing for the mixing of data rates within the
same switch.
Another advantage to using a switch is its ability for
simultaneous messages within its switch fabric. When
a transmission is received on a particular switch port,
Figure 2
— An Ethernet Frame
Figure 3
— Using an Ethernet Switch
April 2011
page 3
© 2011 — No part of the Essentials may be reproduced without the written consent of Contemporary Controls.
the source MAC address of the sender is stored in the
database of the switch. Using this
learning process
shown in Figure 4, the switch determines on what port
a station can be reached. Assume, in Figure 3, that
station A sends a message to station C which has
been attached to port 3, but the switch does not know
how to reach station C. The switch will
the same
message to all ports. When station C eventually replies,
the switch will learn that station C is on port 3 so that
future flooding will not be necessary. Now station A
sends a message to station B, but the switch already
knows that station B can be reached on port 2 by
using a
process so only port 2 will transmit the
message. The other ports do not need to pass the
message because it was only directed to station B.
This frees up the other ports to pass unrelated
messages without a concern for stations A and B’s
traffic. This greatly improves throughput over Shared
Ethernet which requires that only one message can
pass through a hub at any one time.
Now assume the cable on port 1 is moved to port 4. If
station A does not initiate a transmission, the switch
will still believe station A can be reached on port 1. For
this reason, all learned addresses must be
clearing out the database periodically. Eventually,
the pairing of station A with port 1 will be cleared and
transmissions intended for station A will be flooded to
all ports, including port 4. Station A will now receive
the flooded message and its response will allow the
switch to learn its new location.
Modern switches have two more interesting features —
Auto-negotiation and Auto-MDIX. With Auto-negotiation,
the data rate and duplex for link partners is negotiated
during initial connection. If the end station and the
switch port can operate at either 10 Mbps or 100 Mbps
at either half- or full-duplex, the negotiation process
will select higher performing 100 Mbps full-duplex. With
Auto-MDIX, either a straight-through or crossover
cable can be used between an end station or switch
port or between two switch ports.
Stepping Up to Routers
In the beginning of this article we used the example
of visiting a computer store to purchase a device that
will access the Internet and we noted that they will try
to sell us a
. In most instances, the router will
come with a built-in
so that you can connect
several Ethernet devices using just one device. So
again, what is the difference between an Ethernet
router and an Ethernet switch? We will refer back to
the Open Systems Interconnection Model.
Revisiting the OSI Model
In Figure 1 you will see the seven-layer model with each
layer providing a unique service. As we mentioned
before, Ethernet provides services at the
Data Link
layers through the use of bridges and
repeaters. The rules of Ethernet are restricted to a
single local-area-network (LAN). If we have a
collection of interconnected LANs, this is called an

Communicating between LANs within
an inter-network requires
which operate one
layer above that of a switch at the
The most famous of inter-networks is the Internet
with the rules for communication being defined by the
Internet Protocol
It is not necessary that routers support the Internet
Protocol, but this is the
most common protocol used
by routers so we will use this
in our discussion. In Figure
5 you will see a collapsed
seven-layer model which
is called the Internet
Model. The only
difference is that the
functions of
are lumped into the
layer. The transport layer provides end-to-
end communications between applications with the
Transmission Control Protocol
(TCP) being the one
used in the Internet Model. The middle layer is the
network layer which is involved with
host addressing
with the most common addressing
scheme called IPv4.
Figure 4
The Learning Process
Figure 5
— The
Internet Model
April 2011
page 4
© 2011 — No part of the Essentials may be reproduced without the written consent of Contemporary Controls.
IPv4 Header and Datagram
Figure 6 shows an
IPv4 header and datagram
encapsulated into an Ethernet frame. The Ethernet
frame is shown with a destination address (DA) and a
source address (SA) as we would expect. The Type
field has a hexadecimal 0800 indicating the Ethernet
data field contains an IP packet or a portion of an IP
. A Cyclic Redundancy Check (CRC) completes
the frame. When we refer to the Internet Protocol we
talk in terms of packets. With Ethernet communication
we talk in terms of frames. Ethernet frames pass
without issues through Ethernet switches, but it is the
data inside Ethernet frames called packets that hosts
and routers on the Internet respond to. Switches do
not understand the meaning of packets — they just
understand frames.
Figure 6 can be very confusing and it does not get any
easier as we move up the Internet Model. We will just
point out some fields within the packet that are the
most interesting.
With the IPv4 (IP protocol version 4), a new addressing
scheme is introduced to identify hosts on the Internet.
There is a
source IP address
and a
destination IP
just like there are source and destination
Ethernet addresses so what is the difference? IP
addresses are 32-bit long addresses while Ethernet
addresses are 48-bits long. In the Internet world, a
device does not have to be an Ethernet device in order
to have an IP address. While an Ethernet device
manufacturer supplies a unique 48-bit address to the
product it sells, IP addresses are assigned using rules
established by the
Internet Engineering Task Force
(IETF). IP addresses are designated as being private
and public. Public IP addresses must be unique
across the Internet, but private addresses can be
duplicated because they will never reach the Internet
— thanks to IP routers that block them from appearing
on the Internet. Switches would not restrict IP addresses
from appearing and that is one reason why routers are
used to access the Internet and not switches.
Other fields that should be pointed out within the IP
packet are the
IP Datagram Data
. Our main purpose
is to send data between hosts and this data is referred
to as a
. Unlike the transport layer of the
Internet Model which is involved with end-to-end
delivery of data, the network layer is only required to
make its “best effort”. There are no acknowledgements
that a packet sent by a host is received by another. If
the packet is too big to fit into one Ethernet frame, it
is split up into
requiring reassembly at the
receiving end.
Ethernet Switch-Router Combination
Figure 7 shows a four-port Ethernet switch as part of
an IP Router. Although there are a total of five Ethernet
ports on this combination Ethernet switch-router, the
five ports are not peers to one another. Certainly, the
four clustered ports are peers — they are all part of the
internal Ethernet switch and no one port on the switch
has precedence over another. The switch-router is
divided into two halves — the LAN-side and the
WAN-side. The Ethernet switch resides on the
LAN-side or what is sometimes called the private
side. Remember that Ethernet is a local-area-network
technology so Ethernet equipment deployment is
restricted to either a work group, a building, process
line or possibly a campus. Workstations, printers,
servers and automation equipment can attach to any
of these switch ports. If more LAN ports are needed,
external switches can be cascaded to any switch port
on the switch-router.
The one remaining Ethernet port is not part of the switch
fabric. It is called a WAN port for wide-area-network.
It does not have to be an Ethernet port but we will
use an Ethernet port in our example. This single
WAN port is considered to be located on the public
side of the switch-router because this is the port that
gains us access to the Internet. Between the LAN
and WAN sides is logic that controls the routing of
messages between the two sides. How can a single
Ethernet port connect to the Internet? In our example
we are attaching the Ethernet port to a cable modem
although a Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) modem
Figure 6
— IPV4 Header and Datagram
April 2011
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© 2011 — No part of the Essentials may be reproduced without the written consent of Contemporary Controls.
could be used as well. At the far-end of the modem
connection is an Internet Service Provider (ISP) that
functions as a gate-keeper to the Internet.
Obtaining IP Addresses
In our example of Figure 7, the hosts on the private
side have been given private IP addresses. These
addresses can be statically set in the hosts or the hosts
can receive them dynamically using a process called
Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP). In the
dynamic case, the router functions as a DHCP server
providing addresses in a preselected range while the
attached hosts function as DHCP clients requesting IP
addresses. However, the router needs a WAN side
address as well and usually obtains a public IP address
from the ISP using a similar process. Once addressing
is established, connected hosts on the LAN-side can
have access to the Internet through the switch-router.
The translation of the private addresses to that of a
public address is another function of a router.
Ethernet switches and routers have distinct purposes
and when the two devices are included in the same
enclosure — like a switch-router — it is sometimes
difficult to separate the two functions. Think of Ethernet
switches operating at layer 2 of the OSI model and
routers operating one layer up at layer 3. At layer 2,
we are concerned about the rules within one local-
area-network while at layer 3, the rules for operating
in an inter-network result in more complexity.
Figure 7
— Public and Private IP Addressing